David J. Kramer is president of Freedom House. He was deputy assistant secretary of state for Russia and Ukraine in the George W. Bush administration.
During Vice President Biden’s visit to Kiev, he should find time to walk through the Maidan, where he will see makeshift memorials for the more than 100 Ukrainians who lost their lives fighting for a better future for their country. It is a deeply moving experience. Since November, they and hundreds of thousands of others who took to the streets have demanded freedom and the rule of law, dignity and respect for human rights, an end to corruption, and an opportunity to deepen integration with Europe — in short, the opposite of everything that Viktor Yanukovych and Vladimir Putin represent.
Biden’s visit follows a negotiating session in Geneva last week that is getting bad reviews from the protesters still camped out in downtown Kiev. The statement issued after Thursday’s negotiations made no mention of the tens of thousands of Russian troops massed along the Russian-Ukrainian border or Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.
The talks between Ukraine, Russia, the European Union and the United States produced no call for respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. There was, however, a reference to the need for Ukraine’s constitutional process to be “inclusive, transparent and accountable,” even though this plays right into Putin’s desire to meddle in Ukraine’s affairs. There are no clear mechanisms for implementing last week’s agreement and, already, pro-Russian forces in Donetsk have declared that it does not apply to them. Even President Obama has voiced doubts that the Geneva outcome would resolve the crisis.
Such skepticism is warranted. Those who say that it was better for the parties to negotiate should understand that the very decision to agree to such a meeting won Putin a reprieve from the possibility of additional, harder-hitting sanctions. In that respect, Geneva did more harm than good. Sanctions are the only serious hope for forcing Putin to rethink his aggression and for generating opposition within Russia to his policies.
Now, the United States and the European Union are likely to want to give the Geneva process time to play out before considering further sanctions. This will complicate Biden’s agenda since Ukrainian officials and civil society leaders want action, not words.
Ukrainians I met during a recent visit to Kiev lamented the West’s reactive posture and wondered why the United States and the European Union don’t try to prevent or preempt further Russian efforts to destabilize their country. To them, Putin is setting the agenda, and the West is chasing after him. Ukrainians are tired of the now-common refrain in European capitals that the United States and the E.U. are “considering additional sanctions if Russia continues its actions.”
Putin’s takeover of Crimea, justified by bogus claims that ethnic Russians living there were under threat, was precipitated by the February ouster of Yanukovych as Ukraine’s president. This heightened Putin’s insecurity and paranoia that the same could happen in Russia. After the annexation of Crimea proved remarkably easy, Putin turned to other parts of eastern Ukraine, with the dual goals of destabilizing his neighbor so that the aspirations of those in the Maidan are never realized — nor stand as a possible model for Russians — and so that the West loses interest in deepening ties with an increasingly chaotic Ukraine.
Putin’s gamble has so far incurred only a small price: two rounds of limited U.S.-E.U. sanctions that don’t go anywhere near far enough. Even if he’s acting out of a sense of paranoia and weakness, Putin thinks he’s winning. Putin views the West as even weaker than he is and suspects that it won’t adopt hard-hitting sanctions because such measures would cause financial and economic discomfort in Europe — never mind that they could also seriously damage Russia’s already declining economy.
Before Thursday’s negotiations in Geneva, the United States should have implemented a third round of sanctions hitting Russian banks such as Gazprombank and Sberbank. Similarly, more of Putin’s cronies — such as Igor Sechin, head of the largest oil company, Rosneft; Aleksei Miller, head of Gazprom; and Sergei Chemezov, chair of defense exporter Rosoboronexport — and the firms they run should have been targeted already and should be sanctioned now. Had the West, or at least the United States, unveiled another round of serious sanctions before Geneva, Putin would have been on the defensive instead of negotiating from a position of relative strength. Implementing such measures before Biden arrived in Kiev would have sent a powerful message of support to Ukraine and a rebuke to Moscow.
Biden’s trip affords the United States an opportunity to demonstrate solidarity with the people of Ukraine. A visit to Maidan would be especially poignant and underscore the fact that the current crisis stems from Ukrainians’ aspirations to be free — and Putin’s efforts to deny them that possibility.
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